Music: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Laurence Connor
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
This new “semi”-staged production of Chess, a musical that can be seen as a metaphor for the Cold War, is a great deal more welcome than the 2018 revival of the Cold War itself.
The show was developed as a concept album and it then toured in concert form before premiering as a fully staged musical at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1986. By this time, composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had already turned Europop into an art form with Abba and lyricist Tim Rice had established himself as a grand master of musical theatre. Their collaboration produced a collection of songs with enduring appeal, but the show has not been seen in the West End since the end of its initial three-year run.
Inspired by real events, the story tells of the battle for the World Chess crown between challenger, Russian nice guy Anatoly (Michael Ball) and reigning champion, American nasty guy Freddie (Tim Howar). With both the USSR and the USA regarding success at sports and games as symbols of national virility, the stakes are high. When Freddie’s aide, the Hungarian girl Florence (Cassidy Janson) defects to start an affair with Anatoly, the Russian defects to the West, leaving behind a wife, Svetlana (Alexandra Burke) and son.
It is becoming a tradition for popular musicals to be staged at the home of English National Opera every Spring and producers appear to have learned from past mistakes. There is no room here for great singers who can’t act, only for seasoned musical theatre performers. Cedric Neal as the match Arbiter and Phillip Browne as Anatoly’s second both impact strongly and Howar’s thunderous rock style contrasts beautifully with the soulful tones of Janson and Burke, who take complete ownership of the famous duet I Know Him So Well.
Ball’s big moment comes with the now stateless Anatoly’s passionate Anthem. He steps to the front of stage and delivers the song with the confidence and power of a man who has sung it hundreds of times before, as indeed he has. It is a showstopper that can only be followed by the interval.
Stylistically, the music at the beginning of the show is all over the place. A Wagnerian overture is followed in quick succession by echoes of a Lehár operetta, Bon Jovi and a Sousa march. However, midway through the first act, Andersson and Ulvaeus begin to stamp a brand that is distinctively their own, with the result that uncertainty is left behind and the show moves from strength to strength. Rice’s sharp and intelligent lyrics tell the story and enrich the music, but there are also strong instrumental sections, played magnificently by the 60-piece orchestra, conducted by John Rigby.
The description “semi-staged” is made more or less redundant by Laurence Connor’s spectacular production, which makes all the right moves. The orchestra is on stage, but often obscured in Matt Kinley’s set design which begins with squares outlined in white across the entire pitch black stage. Projected images then show performers in close-up, flash up news footage to establish the story’s historical context and create colourful effects, such as engulfing the stage in flames for One Night in Bangkok. Slick dance routines, choreographed by Stephen Mear, contribute further towards making the show as thrilling for the eye as the ENO orchestra/choir and wonderful solo singing make it for the ear.
Quoting Rice’s lyric, “Nothing is so good it lasts eternally…”, but there are times during this production when we wish that it could be otherwise. Andersson and Ulvaeus may have found bigger commercial success from recycling old Abba hits for Mamma Mia!, but, on the evidence seen here, Chess must surely stand as by far their greatest achievement.
Runs until 2 June 2018 | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg